By Dermot Connolly
The coronavirus crisis has had a detrimental effect on businesses throughout the area— many of which have had to suspend operations — and local chambers of commerce are helping members navigate through this uncharted territory.
The $2 trillion stimulus package signed Friday by President Trump provides some hope for financial assistance, but business leaders are still working through the details of what sort of emergency financial aid will be available — and how soon.
“ It is an ongoing situation. Many of our businesses have found themselves unable to operate,” said Felicitas Cortez executive director of the Orland Park Area Chamber of Commerce. “Others are finding ways to conduct business virtually.”
Primarily only grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants with take-out and delivery services remain open as essential services.
“ I know a few of our businesses have decided to suspend operations. But t he great thing about our businesses is, they are resilient and they will (return),” said Cortez. “What the chamber can do is advocate for them. And we have switched from being a networking agency to an advocate for them.”
“ We have partnered with the state as well as local representatives to help them keep their doors open with things like a paycheck protection policy. We have also worked with our local legislators to find grants for businesses.
Cortez commended business owners such as Bob Feldman of Nothing Bundt Cakes, who have bought meals for employees of stores, as well as health care workers and first responders.
“ We found that we are stronger together. We just have to be optimistic and hope this will pass,” she said.
Members of the Evergreen Park Chamber of Commerce met this week to look at the details of the stimulus package, and released a statement on Tuesday.
“ Unfortunately, our community is feeling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic along with everyone else in the world. Many small businesses are closed while some are able to keep the doors open with many accommodations limiting their full sales potential,” it stated. “The few businesses fortunate to stay open are very appreciative of the support they are receiving. That is not a surprise as we live in a great community that supports each other in good times and not so good times. We are hopeful struggling businesses will benefit from the programs being offered through the stimulus package,” it concluded.
“Everything is different and more challenging now,” said Palos Heights Mayor Bob Straz, who also belongs to the Palos Area Chamber of Commerce as a vice president of CNB Bank.
“ Our smaller, family-owned restaurants are better-able to deal with the restrictions than the bigger corporate-owned places. We’re fortunate in that way,” he said, referring to staffing levels and delivery services.
“ None of the guidelines about the stimulus package have come down yet. We know there will be loan programs handled by the Small Business Association but there aren’t a lot of details yet.”
The mayor said city officials are considering offering some type of incentive to residents for patronizing the local businesses hardest hit by the enforced closures.
For the time being, he said that while he and a few officials go into City Hall, much of the day-to-day work of employees is being done from home.
“ We are waiving late fees on bills. That is not our main concern. I am concerned about keeping residents healthy,” Straz said, noting that 50 signs have been posted in all the parks reinforcing the need for people using them to keep a social distance from each other.
Mayor Sandra Bury of Oak Lawn is an optometrist and knows the restrictions on business first-hand, in addition to handling village business.
“ My office is closed for routine care,” she noted. But she has been able to use telemedicine to consult with patients remotely, and those in need of new glasses immediately can have them mailed.
Because of the changing situation, she encourages residents to sign up for the Smart911 emergency system so they can be easily notified when needed.
“Hopefully this is a once in a lifetime event and not an annual occurrence,” said Jim Makina, second vice president of the Oak Lawn Chamber of Commerce.
The owner of Marketing Print Mail said the stimulus package still leaves a lot of questions unanswered for small business owners considering the present situation.
“If you are not a necessary business, you are no longer in business and the prospects of reopening are now much slimmer. The government grant program and Small Business Association disaster loans offer incentives to maintain employee payroll but how can this be accomplished if businesses are closed, or when we have lost half and more of even more in sales?,” he wondered. “Will employees work for the promise of future paychecks? Placing employees on unemployment is a quick solution for small businesses. Taking on SBA loans will be our option to continue as a viable business, and support the families of the people who work here. That’s the risk I’m willing to take each day.”
Oak Lawn attorney Eileen Kerlin Walsh, whose law office is in Worth, is the first vice president of the Oak Lawn Chamber .
“ Legal services are considered essential so we thankfully are able to keep working. Our phones have been ringing because people are fearful and want their estate plans in place,” she said.
She said personal contact with clients has been minimized since Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed an emergency order allowing documents to be witnessed and notarized remotely and electronically so clients can get their documents signed in the safety and comfort of their own homes.
For those without technology, “We are doing window signings at their homes or drive-up signings at out office, all the while maintaining the safety requirements of the Centers for Disease Control.”
“ It's a delicate balancing act taking care of clients, keeping them, as well as our own staff and families safe and healthy, but so far so good,” Walsh said.